DOLITTLE. Starring by voice, or live: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Octavia Spencer, Ralph Fiennes, Marion Cotillard, and Jessie Buckley. Directed by Stephen Gaghan. Rated PG (Mild themes and violence). 101 min.
This American fantasy-adventure movie is drawn from a screenplay written by the Director of the film, Stephen Gaghan and Thomas Shepherd. It is based loosely on the character of Dr. John Dolittle, created by the author, Hugh Lofting, in his book, “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle” which was published in 1922. This was the second of Lofting’s books written for his character.
In the film, Robert Downey Jr. plays the title character, and is aided by Michael Sheen and Antonio Banderas in live action roles. A star-studded cast voices animal creatures throughout the film in fantasy format. Downey catapulted into renewed fame in the fantasy film, The Avengers” (2012).
The story shows Dr. Dolittle, a famous doctor and veterinarian living in Victorian England around the 1920s, who isolates himself away from the scrutiny of the outside world, behind the walls of Dolittle manor. He lost his wife, the love of his life, seven years earlier, and he intentionally creates his isolation. In his efforts to cope with his loss, he surrounds himself with animals for company - particularly so, after he has developed the ability to talk to them. His animal friends are now many and varied.
Dolittle’s most trusted advisor is a wise and opinionated coloured macaw, called Polynesia, voiced by Emma Thompson. Polynesia regularly gives him the confidential advice he needs. Octavia Spencer voices Dab-Dab, an anxious duck with a metal leg. On the side of not so friendly animals, Ralph Fiennes voices Barry, a ferocious tiger with gold-tipped fangs. Marion Cotillard voices Tutu, a wily fox.
The plot thickens when Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) becomes sick in England. She is being poisoned in her Palace by disloyal subjects, and a distraught Dr. Dolittle goes in search of an antidote cure for her with a small band of his animal friends. The search takes him to a mythical island where he meets adversaries he knows well from the past, but he also makes friends with new creatures, who respond to his special ability to talk to them. The negative responses form the basis for some high action scenarios.
It is a perilous and risky journey for Dr. Dolittle, and he is reluctant to take it. However, he accepts that his personal mission is to do whatever he can to save the young Queen of England, who is gravely ill, and needs his help.
The film’s animation is generally excellent, though the computer-animation process has some shaky moments. Robert Downey Jr. takes the leading role of Dr. Dolittle, and Downey Jr. interacts freely with the animals, but in the early part of the film he overacts in his role and viewers have more than ample opportunity to familiarise themselves with the film’s animation technology. He excessively talks to his animals and they talk back to him, and to each other, to prove the point.
In the latter part of the film, the plot-line shifts focus to stress high adventure. When adventure format rules the game, the movie picks up pace and the talking animals are integrated much better into the plot-action, until the Queen is saved. The movie has good pro-social messages like “only by helping others can we truly help ourselves”, but such messages are integrated only casually into the action flow.
This is a movie that capitalises on adventure antics between animals and humans, and aims for broad family appeal. The film is photographed competently, and the movie should have particular appeal for younger children. It has strong competition in the medium to low-budget action-market from much better films like “JoJo Rabbit” and “Jumanji: The next Level”, but animal appeal should help it to hold some ground.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Universal Pictures International
Released January 16, 2020